Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Is Barack Obama Really Person of the Year?

In what is perhaps one of the most overhyped stories of the year, Time Magazine named their 2012 Person of the Year on Wednesday. With all of the compelling stories that happen on a yearly basis, there are always going to be plenty of candidates to choose from, but this year’s winner ended up being President Barack Obama. It marks the second time that he has captured the honor (the magazine seems to have a thing about calling it an “award”), having also done so in 2008 when he became the first African-American elected President.

The piece citing why the magazine decided to designate Obama as POTY seemed to focus mostly on the President’s hard fought reelection victory back in November. The campaign was arguably the most bitter we have seen in our lifetimes (although an argument can be made it isn’t the most bitter ever, because Obama didn’t accuse of Mitt Romney of being a hermaphrodite, like Thomas Jefferson did to John Adams in 1800), but the end result was indeed historic. No President has ever overcome this type of opposition, as well as flagging employment numbers and negligible consumer confidence to win, but Obama’s message of unity apparently still resonates with voters.

But is that enough for him to actually be considered the Person of the Year? In the eyes of many, it is not. His accomplishments he most frequently touted during his campaign included passage of the automotive industry bailout in 2009 and the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and even though the latter passed Supreme Court muster in 2012, the fact of the matter is that his accomplishments have really been limited to the other years of his term, and not the largely thrown away year of 2012, which he spent vigorously campaigning.
There were several other candidates that Time considered featuring, but in my eyes, there were two, one the magazine recognized and one they did not, that deserve to be slotted ahead of Obama this year:

Malala Yousafzai

Even if this incredible young woman’s name doesn’t ring a bell, odds are you are familiar with her story. Yousafzai is a 15 year old Pakistani student who has been advocating better education for women in her country, and earlier this year, the Taliban decided they had had enough, and put a bullet in her head. Fortunately for her, and for her cause, she survived, and she is recovering from her wounds and still advocating forcefully for her beliefs.

She had been blogging for the BBC about her education, but after she revealed her identity, these animals decided that they couldn’t have a woman dare speak out about such an issue. Her survival in the face of such a heinous attack is an incredible testament to the power of advocacy, and how hatred is powerless to stop it.
Much like the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King Jr, and the quest to put an American on the moon after the killing of John F. Kennedy, the movement that Yousafzai is part of has been emboldened by her strength in the face of adversity, and Time Magazine should have recognized that by giving her this honor.

In fairness to Time, they did make her the runner-up for the title, citing her relative newness to the scene and her young age. When you compare what she has accomplished in terms of raising awareness for such a critical issue with the accomplishment involved in winning a re-election battle (only three sitting Presidents in the last 80 years, Ford, Carter, and Bush 41, have been defeated as incumbents), then this almost feels like they are downplaying what she has done.

This publication has also snubbed women in the past under dubious circumstances. In 1955, the magazine honored Harlow Curtice, the CEO of General Motors, as its Man of the Year, passing over some woman named Rosa Parks, whose refusal to relinquish her seat on a bus led to a slew of boycotts that eventually ended that asinine practice. Once again, in fairness to Time, we have the benefit of hindsight on that one, and it may be the case that they didn’t quite see the impact of the story when they named Curtice Man of the Year a few weeks after the incident took place, but the bias toward men is still noticeable.

In addition, Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983, and Ronald Reagan (who won for the second time that year) and Yuri Andropov were honored as Co-Men of the Year by the magazine. In the year that Ride passed away, it would have been appropriate for the magazine to honor a woman for breaking through boundaries, but instead they chose the safe pick and went with the President.


Last year, Time honored “Protesters” as their People of the Year, but even with that distinction already being doled out, the activist group (I hesitate to call them “hacktivists”, because there are plenty of people who help the organization who have no inkling on how to use a computer for nefarious purposes) should have been a huge contender for the honor this year.

This was finally the year when online privacy rights issues finally began to make waves in the mainstream media. The first big splash of the year was the fight over the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) bill that Congress was considering in January. The bill was touted as one that would help bring an end to the harmful practice of online piracy, thereby protecting the intellectual property of groups like the Recording Industry of America and the Motion Picture Association of America.

The opposition to the bill, however, was fierce and unrivaled in terms of the debate over internet freedom. Wikipedia and Reddit both led a service blackout on January 18th, affecting millions of people the world over. Anonymous was instrumental in educating people about the controversial bills, providing links to all sorts of op-eds and articles on the subject and engaging in a lot of grassroots activism that showed that they weren’t solely reliant on illegal or vaguely immoral tactics to achieve their goals.

In addition to this activism, they also have been loud and vocal supporters of former soldier Bradley Manning, who is currently on trial for leaking classified documents to the website Wikileaks. Manning was held for a very long time in deplorable conditions, leading to an international outcry against his treatment by the United States. They have organized websites soliciting donations for his defense fund, and have made it a point to call out the hypocrisy of organizations like the New York Times, who declined to send a reporter to cover hearings for Manning despite having published the Pentagon Papers, which were classified documents that effectively ended the country’s support of the Vietnam War.

The collective also got involved when Israel and Gaza were exchanging fire in November. In retaliation for what they considered to be the unacceptably violent response by Israel in the conflict, the group organized #OpIsrael, which was dedicated to ensuring that citizens in Gaza would still have access to the internet, as well as organizing the delivery of care packages and medical supplies to those caught in the crossfire. They also defaced several Israeli websites, including taking down the International Security Academy's website, and hacked information from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in an effort to show just who exactly was supporting the military action. 

Perhaps most notably of all though, the group has been hacking and assailing the controversial group Westboro Baptist Church in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings. The “church” (although I hesitate to call those dirtbags a church) threatened to picket the funerals of students and teachers from the massacre, and in response Anonymous has been hacking the group’s emails and phone records and publishing all of them on the internet. They showed a scared organization who has never been hit with this kind of opposition before, and could be instrumental in finally ridding the world of this scourge once and for all.

In addition to their hacking activities in this matter, the group has also been aggressively pushing petitions on the White House’s official website to have Westboro legally declared a “hate group”, as well to have their tax exempt status as a church taken away from them.

It is this mix of legal, illegal, and gray area tactics that have made Anonymous such a lightning rod for both criticism and praise, and Time Magazine should have at least given them greater consideration for the spot as “Persons of the Year”. Yet, the magazine has largely shied away from labeling such controversial people with that title. For instance, in 2001 the magazine selected Rudy Guiliani for the distinction, but in their article endorsing him they seemed to hint that the more deserving winner should have been 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The hesitation to honor the controversial stems from the flood of criticism the publication received in 1979 when they named Ayatollah Khomeni as Person of the Year during the height of the Iranian Revolution. The magazine has also named Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin (twice), and Yasser Arafat as Men of the Year at various times, so while they are no strangers to understanding the world impact of even controversial figures, it does seem that they are trying to stay away from that in the hopes of not alienating readers. 

While this is somewhat understandable, the facts remain the same, and that is the group is a worthy contender to challenge or potentially usurp the title from Barack Obama. Anonymous has not been responsible for any of the types of heinous crimes that Hitler and his ilk were, and yet they are pilloried just the same by the Department of Defense and others, and so Time apparently has decided that they are just too controversial to gain the top spot on this list. And that is truly a shame. 

As the magazine will be the first to tell you, they don’t really consider Person of the Year to be an award. Rather, they are of the belief that they are simply profiling “a person, group, idea or object that, for better or for worse….has done the most to influence the events of the year.” While President Obama has certainly had a big impact on the present and the future of the United States and of the world, taken as a standalone year, 2012 wasn’t the year of Obama. It was the year of people like Malala Yousafzai and groups like Anonymous.

This decision isn’t the end all be all of anything, but it still is a good excuse to look back on the year that was in 2012, and that, perhaps, is what we should all take away from this choice most of all.

No comments:

Post a Comment